5 Business Lessons Learned on the Golf Course
We live in a hyper-connected society, and being disconnected for four hours if you're in sales or marketing can be daunting—and seem like a major loss of time. While Twitter, Facebook, e-mail and even text messaging have made it easier to communicate with more people in the course of a single day, for some people, they mean devoting less time to the in-person interactions we use to actually build relationships. That's why golf, a four-hour (or more) adventure through greens, fairways, bunkers, and other hazards, remains one of the greatest ways to build and maintain solid business relationships.
"It's a bit of a looking glass into how people think," notes Brad Brewer, a PGA Professional and founder of the Brad Brewer Golf Academy in Orlando and the author of the recently released Mentored by the King: Arnold Palmer's Success Lessons for Golf, Business and Life. "You observe over a period of time the habits of the individual. You see their integrity, their mannerisms, how they approach different situations, how they deal with success and failure. But in the end, I think the beauty of being able to create a relationship with somebody and bond with them for four or five hours is very valuable—I don't know that there's another place that you have the capability of doing that."
Contrary to popular belief, though, deals are rarely closed on the golf course. If you approach the round with that sole intention, you're likely to leave without a contract—and with a ruined relationship. Good things take time, and golf provides a relatively low-stress, tension-free look into business executives. "No matter how sophisticated the business world becomes, golf remains the communication hub," says David Rynecki, the founder of Blue Heron Research Partners, a former golf and business journalist, and the author of Deals on the Green: Lessons on Business and Golf from America's Top Executives.
"Golf teaches you about a person's reactions in adversity—how they deal competitively with situations—because with golf there is such an easy mechanism to take advantage of the rules," Rynecki writes. "I'm not worried about their skills as a player, but rather how they conduct themselves, as golf, like business and life, will test you in a multitude of ways.'
So how do you ensure that you don't take yourself, or the game, too seriously while you're playing a round of golf intended to build or strengthen a business relationship? It's important not to let small things get to you. It really is all about having fun and making sure that everyone you are playing with is having a good time.
"A lot of it is just common sense and common courtesy," says Brewer. "Making sure you play the game with the integrity it was designed with, you are immediately starting to build a relationship with somebody. That's why old Tom Morris and the boys came up with the etiquettes to get along with one another—where you stand, not talking and watching others ball flight if they lose it. I think playing by the traditions of the game itself, it starts to form these deep bonds."
Brewer goes on to write about 35 principles he has learned from practicing, working with and becoming friends with the legendary Palmer over the past 25 years. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from his book is that connecting with people at the golf course isn't much different from connecting in business or in life, principles preached by Palmer.
Five of the most relevant principles from Palmer that apply to business include:
• Always Give a Firm Handshake: 'If you are going to shake someone's hand, then grab a firm hold and look them in eye," Palmer says. "A man's handshake should be as good as his word. You can throw away all the contracts ever written by the best attorneys. Written contracts can all be broken. All my important deals were done with a handshake." You can tell a lot about a person based on his or her handshake, whether in business or on the golf course. Make sure you leave a strong lasting image.
• Don't Dwell on Yesterday's News: "I have enjoyed every victory and greatly cherish the memories," Palmer notes. "But come Monday morning of the next week, I'm not different than the man who missed the cut last week…So if I am to be competitively ready, I must get my thoughts off yesterday and deal with today. As long as I want to stay competitive, I must never stop and marvel at what I have accomplished—only forward to my next challenge at hand."
• Practice Like a Pro: "To achieve greatness," Brewer writes, "successful people don't just show up, set up and try for the best. The steps in the march toward victory begin weeks—if not months or years—in advance." The same goes in business. You need to pay your dues before you reach higher ground. Don't try to hit the ball before you're ready.
• Use Fear for Fuel: "Everyone wants to win,' Palmer says, "or they wouldn't do what they do. But not many people ever think about it. Many times I would think, I can't lose, I just cannot. Maybe it's an odd way to think, but it drove me to play harder than just 'thinking' about winning…I made a lot of golf shots out of desperation, thinking that I had to pull it off because, frankly, I was afraid to lose." In business, you can't be afraid to take a chance and fail, which makes winning even sweeter.
• Befriend Your Enemy: Stating the long and storied relationship between Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, often viewed as contentious and highly spirited, Brewer talks about the great relationship between the rivals. "The long and layered relationship is a good reminder that just because you're 'enemies' on the course doesn't mean you can't be friends for life off it." The same is true in business. Don't think about your competitors as enemies, but as a challenge for you to work harder.
What characteristics do successful businesspeople and successful golfers have in common? According to Brewer, regardless of what you're talking about, successful people do things a specific way, which often carries over to the golf course. But there is also a fascinating idea that some of the smartest people in business struggle at golf.
"Whenever I play a round with someone," Rynecki says, "it's important to recognize the personality of the person or people you are playing with. You have to recognize that so many executives do not understand why they aren't as good at golf as they are at business. They work at it and work at it, and just get madder and madder because they can't succeed as much as much as they do in business. The intensity and the competitive fire are common characteristics in most successful people. They're often people who just cannot lose. And interestingly, if you're playing for no money and then you put a few bucks on a hole, it becomes a totally different game."
Don't forget, it's fundamentally a sport in which money matters. When the economy took a dive, so did country club memberships. As of August 2010, private-club memberships stood at 2.1 million in the United States, down from its high of 3 million in the 1990s, according to the National Golf Foundation. But as financial markets have rebounded, people are again beginning to spend valuable time with customers and colleagues on the golf course. Again, it couldn't come at a better time with the proliferation of technology as our primary means of communication. That being said, some may still find it difficult to justify spending four hours with one customer while shunning all others. It's all about what matters most to you.
"It really does depend on the business you're in," Brewer adds. "The reason Arnold Palmer was so successful in golf and in business is that he had a passion for winning. Whatever it takes sometimes is the approach he would take, and I'm a firm believer that it's hard to find a place better than the golf course to build, deepen, and strengthen relationships than the golf course."